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Up Close With Lions And Tigers Rescued From The Underworld

The public is welcome at Germany's "Big Cat Sanctuary," a place of last resort for animals once in the grips of illegal circuses and mob traffickers.

Tiger at Ansbach's Big Cat Sanctuary
Tiger at Ansbach's Big Cat Sanctuary
Tim Sauer

ANSBACH Very few people drive down this tiny deserted road. When a car approaches on the opposite side, you basically have to drive into the ditch to avoid a collision. Fields border the road on both sides, and only a few trees and houses can be seen in the distance.

The surrounding landscape doesn't offer a clue about the true forces of nature to be found nearby. Only seven kilometers from Ansbach is the home of the "Big Cat Sanctuary," known more formally as the Sanctuary for Predators and Exotic Animals. The animals who live here are predators who are potentially lethal to humans, and they have been saved from illegal trafficking and exploitation.

Though the sanctuary is far from perfect in terms of what it can offer these animals, it is a truly unique place. Olaf Neuendorf greets us at the gates and shows us the grounds by following the twisting paths. We don't hear any of the tigers or pumas while walking. But when we stop and listen closely, there is a sort of low, ominous growl.

Neuendorf leads on, opening two doors in quick succession. All of a sudden we are face to face with Chiara, an 11-year-old female tiger. Only a few bars separate us from the watchful predator, and it's a mesmerizing experience.

Even though we are in absolutely no danger, we can sense the sheer power with which a tiger hunts her prey. "I would like to ask you to refrain from sticking your fingers through the bars," Neuendorf says. "I would have to feed Chiara a little less later on, but you would be missing a few digits."

He knows his animals and is even able to communicate with them. When he purrs, Chiara purrs in return. Neuendorf has been working at the sanctuary for 25 years. Originally, an architect and his wife ran the place privately, with official permission to raise these animals.

Since then, the park has been financed entirely through the donations it receives through the Exotic Animal and Big Cat Asylum Association, which Neuendorf chairs. Only three other people, either interns or volunteers, help him with the daily tasks of feeding and caring for the animals. Neuendorf himself is here at least five days a week.

Not home, but a better fate

This is a place of last resort for the animals, who were illegally held by circuses, private individuals or smugglers who wanted to sell them on the black market before being discovered by federal authorities. Officials are required to find new homes for them, but there are very few solutions to the problem.

Many zoos are unwilling to accept animals that are not thoroughbred or whose origins are unknown. Animal parks and this sanctuary are the only alternatives. The animals can't be re-released back into the wild because they haven't been through a species-saving program. But this should definitely be regarded as the proverbial lesser evil. Though the animals are treated well, the small enclosures aren't ideal for the big cats.

This sanctuary is unique in Germany simply by virtue of its private financing. Neuendorf would like to modernize the complex but doesn't have the funding. The running costs for a single month alone are 8,000 euros, which isn't surprising after viewing the contents of the refrigerated storage building, where a ton of raw meat can be found at any given time to feed the residents.

The tigers eat about 35 kilograms of meat a day, in striking contrast to the puma, which eats only three kilograms. Many of the 800 annual visitors make donations, and Neuendorf stresses that "every euro counts."

A visit here can't be compared to an afternoon at the zoo. This isn't an event-focused park. There are no playgrounds, popcorn machines or beer gardens. The only highlight is the animals, to whom visitors can get closer than anywhere else.

For more information and to find dates for guided tours, visit www.raubkatzenasyl.de.

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